Opioid Conference Fails to Secure Bipartisan Agreement on Money

Pallone surprised members with a report debunking Lifeline fraud findings. (Rob Kunzig/Morning Consult)

Amendments to give additional funding to the nation’s opioid epidemic failed in a conference committee on Wednesday, threatening the fate of widely supported legislation addressing the problem.

The conference committee voted on two amendments to dedicate taxpayer dollars to fighting opioid abuse. One was sponsored by House Energy and Commerce Committee ranking member Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), and the other was authored by Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the ranking member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. Both amendments failed along party lines.

“Anything less than a robust response to address this crisis will result in increased deaths and place enormous emotional and financial burdens on our families and communities,” Pallone said. “We save money today at the expense of lives lost and increased spending later.”

Democrats say they won’t sign a conference report for the legislation if it does not give financial resources to combating the opioid epidemic. Republicans say funding should be addressed through the normal appropriations process.

“I’m opposed to the amendment, but I’m in favor of the policy, and I’m in favor of funding. This is just not the way to do it,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chairman of the HELP Committee, during debate on the Murray amendment.

It’s unclear what happens next. Although the House can pass opioid legislation without Democratic votes, this is not the case in the Senate. Republican supporters do not have the 60 votes necessary to block a filibuster.

This sets up a familiar scenario. In the past two weeks, a House-Senate conference report to fund the Zika virus passed along partisan lines in the House and then failed along partisan lines in the Senate.

While the White House has threatened to veto the House-passed, GOP-supported Zika bill, it has not yet done so for opioid legislation, even though the administration also wants additional funding. In a call with reporters on Tuesday, Michael Botticelli, the director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, hesitated when asked whether the president would veto an opioid bill without dedicated funding. He instead referred to a letter written by conference committee Democrats earlier that day saying they would not vote for a bill that doesn’t include funding.

“I think it’s premature to make a determination about whether or not the president signs the legislation,” Botticelli said. “I think that if you’ve seen a copy of the letter, that the Democratic conferees said they’ve made it clear that they don’t intend to sign off on a conference committee report that doesn’t include the significant infusion of treatment resources that the president has laid out.”

President Obama has requested $1.1 billion in funding for the opioid epidemic, but several different dollar amounts have been thrown around on Capitol Hill as a response. The Pallone and Murray amendments both would give an additional $920 million in immediate funding over the next two years, fully offset. When the Senate was considering its opioid bill, an amendment to give an additional $600 million to the effort failed, also along party lines.

Earlier Wednesday, the House Appropriations Committee released its 2017 spending bill to fund the Department of Health and Human Services. It would allocate $581 million to the opioid epidemic, an increase of $525 million over the 2016 level. However, the bill also includes partisan poison pills, such as defunding Obamacare, meaning it’s highly unlikely to become law.

On the other hand, the Senate Appropriations Committee overwhelmingly passed its version of the HHS spending bill last month. That bill is supported by both Republicans and Democrats and does not include problematic provisions, but it would give less towards the opioid epidemic. The bill would provide $261 million to fighting opioid abuse, an increase of $126 million from the previous year and $221 million from 2015.

The underlying policies of the opioid legislation have strong bipartisan support. They generally expand treatment options for people addicted to either heroin or prescription painkillers and change the way opioids are prescribed and distributed to help prevent addiction. The only problem is that Republicans and Democrats can’t agree on how to fund it.

Clarification: Democrats said they would not sign the opioid conference report, which is an indication that some might not vote for it on the floor. 

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